Tales From The Information Underground

August 28, 1996

A mailing list is like a river of ideas. Each day, a countless number of conversations take place on thousands of mailing lists. Each e-mail has a title and each title covers a certain topic. Sometimes experts write on these topics, sometimes inquiring novices. Some topics generate a great deal of conversation, others die quickly. Most all of them a Netter has to ignore.

Yet how could I refuse to read about "orbiting databases"?

Censorship was once again the issue of the day on the cypherpunks mailing list (cypherpunks are interested in electronic encryption and privacy rights). In a way, it's almost disappointing the Communication Decency Act was killed in court. Enforcing government censorship on the Internet could have brought about some pretty interesting ways of hiding and passing information.

By the time I had tapped into this particular discussion, they had already talked of installing hard drives and satellite dishes on ships and discarded oil rigs. Informational contraband could be safely kept there as long as these ships were in international waters, beyond the jurisdiction of any government. Illegal information would be available to everyone the world over.

So it was just a short leap from off-shore to off-planet. One participant mentioned the idea of sending a satellite into space loaded with hard drives--"a literal orbiting data haven."

"Granted," he wrote, "You wouldn't have all the fun of floating around the South Pacific fending off pirates and navies who are after your data, but it would work."

A crazy idea? the Ham radio community have launching satellites to communicate to one another for the past 30 years.

The orbiting data haven idea was shot down pretty quickly though--One person pointed out that hard drives won't work in the vacuum of a satellite. And there there's the problem of replacing defective equipment--such as malfunctioning hard drives--in space. Just ask NASA about that.

The conversation had pretty much died out until someone mentioned BlackNet. Why spend money for satellites when BlackNet could do the same job much more cheaply?

What is BlackNet? BlackNet doesn't yet exist. Probably not, anyway. At least not under that name. It is a theoretical construct of cypherpunks cofounder Timothy C. May. May pointed out in this mailing list that his BlackNet could serve the same function as a data haven.

Originally May had proposed the concept of BlackNet in 1987. (It is described in a new anthology of writings on cyberspace, called High Noon on the Electronic Frontier). In its simplest incarnation, BlackNet is an anonymous marketplace of information, one that keeps the identities of both the buyer and the seller completely untraceable. It's executed with encryption techniques and anonymous remailers (a server that strips any identifying information an e-mail before forwarding it to the recipient. See the Anonymous Remailer FAQ.)

How does it work? Say someone is looking for a certain bit of information. He or she posts an encrypted request on a designated newsgroup. "BlackNet" operators scan the newsgroup for requests, looking to sell data that they may have already purchased from other anonymous parties. If they have what the seeker is looking for, they post it on another newsgroup or some other cyber-holding pen that the seeker previously specified. The information itself is stripped of any traceable marks and is encrypted so that only the recipient can decode it. The payment, if there is one, is placed in an electronic escrow service.

What sort of info could be purchased? In his Noon essay, May suggests trade secrets, production methods, rumors, chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing secrets, new product plans "from children's toys to cruise missiles."

In short, whatever information someone is willing to pay for. Whatever information deemed illegal to possess or to sell.

May, unlike many future Netopians, is well aware of the dangers of BlackNet. Nonetheless, May argues, corrupt use of an "anonymous computerized market" is inevitable.

"Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds. . . so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions."

It's pretty radical stuff, but it's stuff that these cypherpunks had discussed for years. May's posts comparing BlackNet to orbiting data havens garnered the usual round of criticisms from the peanut gallery. How can buyers and sellers trust each other on BlackNet without a government agency to enforce contract laws? What's to stop the FBI, CIA or the NSA from setting up decoys, or middlemen, to monitor traffic and bust traffickers?

Signing on to a mailing list is like opening doors into private conversation room, where minds that think alike, once isolated, gather to confer. Their collective knowledge grows exponentially. Who knows where this will all lead?

--Joab Jackson

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